E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
Author of "A Maker of History," "The Long Arm of Mannister," "The Missioner," etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY WILL GREFE AND HOWARD SOMERVILLE
I. MR. PHINEAS DUGE
II. COUSIN STELLA
III. STORM CLOUDS
IV. A MEETING OF GIANTS
VI. MR. WEISS IN A HURRY
VII. A PROFESSIONAL BURGLAR
X. MR. NORRIS VINE
XI. MR. LITTLESON, FLATTERER
XII. STELLA SUCCEEDS
XIII. BEARDING THE LION
XIV. STELLA PROVES OBSTINATE
XV. THE WARNING
XVI. A TRUCE
I. MY NAME IS MILDMAY
III. "WILL YOU MARRY ME?"
IV. THE AMERICAN AMBASSADOR
V. A QUESTION OF COURAGE
VI. MR. MILDMAY AGAIN
VII. AN APPOINTMENT
X. A NEW VENTURE
XII. DUKE OF MOWBRAY
XIII. AN INTRODUCTION
XIV. ANOTHER DISAPPEARANCE
XV. MR. DUGE THREATENS
XVII. MR. DUGE FAILS
XVIII. ADVICE FOR MR. VINE
XIX. THE CRISIS
XXI. A LESSON LEARNED
XXII. A SURPRISE
XXIII. A DINNER PARTY
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"AS I DARESAY YOU KNOW, I AM NOT ON SPEAKING TERMS WITH MY FATHER!"
ONE OF THE BLOCKS SPRANG UP A LITTLE WAY AND WAS EASILY REMOVED
A BULLET WHISTLED ONLY A FEW INCHES FROM HIS HEAD
PHINEAS DUGE DROPPED HIS CIGARETTE, AND FELL ON HIS KNEES BY HER SIDE
"FOR GOD'S SAKE, TELL ME WHO HAS IT, MISS DUGE!" HE IMPLORED
"ISN'T IT THE BUSINESS OF ANY MAN TO LOOK AFTER A CHILD LIKE YOU?"
VIRGINIA, WITH A LITTLE MURMUR OF DELIGHT, RECOGNIZED MR. MILDMAY STANDING BEFORE HER
SIMULTANEOUSLY SHE HEARD A STEALTHY MOVEMENT OUTSIDE
THEN HE CAME SLOWLY BACK, AND PUTTING HIS ARM AROUND VIRGINIA'S WAIST, KISSED HER
SHE THOUGHT NOTHING OF THE MOTIVE OF HER COMING, ONLY TO PLACE THE DOOR BETWEEN HER AND THIS!
HE HAD AN OPPORTUNITY OF WATCHING A SEARCH CONDUCTED UPON SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES
THEN IN THE MIDST OF HER WONDERING CAME THE ELUCIDATION OF THESE THINGS
HE WAS ONLY JUST IN TIME TO SAVE HER FROM FALLING
MR. PHINEAS DUGE
Virginia, when she had torn herself away from the bosom of her sorrowing but excited family, and boarded the car which passed only once a day through the tiny village in Massachusetts, where all her life had been spent, had felt herself, notwithstanding her nineteen years, a person of consequence and dignity. Virginia, when four hours later she followed a tall footman in wonderful livery through a stately suite of reception rooms in one of the finest of Fifth Avenue mansions, felt herself suddenly a very insignificant person. The roar and bustle of New York were still in her ears. Bewildered as she had been by this first contact with all the distracting influences of a great city, she was even more distraught by the wonder and magnificence of these, her more immediate surroundings. She, who had lived all her life in a simple farmhouse, where every one worked, and a single servant was regarded as a luxury, found herself suddenly in the palace of a millionaire, a palace made perfect by the despoilment of more than one of the most ancient homes in Europe.
Very timidly, and with awed glances, she looked around her as she was conducted in leisurely manner to the sanctum of the great man at whose bidding she had come. The pictures on the walls, magnificent and impressive even to her ignorant eyes; the hardwood floors, the wonderful furniture, the statuary and flowers, the smooth-tongued servants—all these things were an absolute revelation to her. She had read of such things, even perhaps dreamed of them, but she had never imagined it possible that she herself might be brought into actual contact with them.
At every step she took she felt her self-confidence decreasing; her clothes, made by the village dressmaker from an undoubted French model, with which she had been more than satisfied only a few hours ago, seemed suddenly dowdy and ill-fashioned. She was even doubtful about her looks, although quite half a dozen of the nicest young men in her neighbourhood had been doing their best to make her vain since the day when she had left college, an unusually early graduate, and returned to her father's tiny home to become the acknowledged belle of the neighbourhood. Here, though, she felt her looks of small avail; she might reign as a queen in Wellham Springs, but she felt herself a very insignificant person in the home of her uncle, the great railway millionaire and financier, Mr. Phineas Duge. Her courage had almost evaporated when at last, after a very careful knock at the door, an English footman ushered her into the small and jealously guarded sanctum in which the great man was sitting. She passed only a few steps across the threshold, and stood there, a timid, hesitating figure, her dark eyes very anxiously searching the features of the man who had risen from his seat to greet her.
"So this is my niece Virginia," he said, holding out both his hands. "I am glad to see you. Take this chair close to me. I am getting an old man, you see, and I have many whims. I like to have any one with whom I am talking almost at my elbow. Now tell me, my dear, what sort of a journey you have had. You look a little tired, or is it because everything here is strange to you?"
All her fears seemed to be melting away. Never could she have imagined a more harmless-looking, benevolent, and handsome old gentleman. He was thin and of only moderate stature. His white hair, of which he still had plenty, was parted in the middle and brushed away in little waves. He was clean-shaven, and his grey eyes were at once soft and humorous. He had a delicate mouth, refined features, and his slow, distinct speech was pleasant, almost soothing to listen to. She felt suddenly an immense wave of relief, and she realized perhaps for the first time how much she had dreaded this meeting.
"I am not really tired at all," she assured him, "only you see I have never been in a big city, and it is very noisy here, isn't it? Besides, I have never seen anything so beautiful as this house. I think it frightened me a little."
He laid his hand upon hers kindly.
"I imagine," he said, smiling, "that you will very soon get used to this. You will have the opportunity, if you choose."
She laughed softly.
"If I choose!" she repeated. "Why, it is all like fairyland to me."
"You come," he said, "from a very quiet life. You will find things here different. Do you know what these are?"
He touched a little row of black instruments which stood on the top of his desk. She shook her head doubtfully.
"I am not quite sure," she admitted.
"They are telephones," he said. "This one"—touching the first—"is a private wire to my offices in Wall Street. This one"—laying a finger upon the second—"is a private wire to the bank of which I am president. These two," he continued, "are connected with the two brokers whom I employ. The other three are ordinary telephones—two for long distance calls and one for the city. When you came in I touched this knob on the floor beneath my foot. All the telephones were at once disconnected here and connected with my secretaries' room. I can sit here at this table and shake the money-markets of the world. I can send stocks up or down at my will. I can ruin if I like, or I can enrich. It is the fashion nowadays to speak lightly of the mere man of money, yet there is no king on his throne who can shake the world as can we kings of the money-market by the lifting even of a finger."
"Are you a millionaire?" she asked timidly. "But, of course, you must be, or you could not live in a house like this."
He laid his hand gently upon hers.
"Yes," he said, "I am a millionaire a good many times over, or I should not be of much account in New York. But there, I have told you enough about myself. I sent for you, as you know, because there are times when I feel a little lonely, and I thought that if my sister could spare one of her children, it would be a kindly act, and one which I might perhaps be able to repay. Do you think that you would like to live here with me, Virginia, and be mistress of this house?"
She shrank a little away. The prospect was not without its terrifying side.
"Why, I should love it," she declared, "but I simply shouldn't dare to think of it. You don't understand, I am afraid, the way we live down at Wellham Springs. We have really no servants, and we do everything ourselves. I couldn't attempt to manage a house like this."
He smiled at her kindly.
"Perhaps," he said, "you would find it less difficult than you think. There is a housekeeper already, who sees to all the practical part of it. She only needs to have some one to whom she can refer now and then. You would have nothing whatever to do with the managing of the servants, the commissariat, or anything of that sort. Yours would be purely social duties."
"I am afraid," she answered, "that I should know even less about them."
"Well," he said, "I have some good friends who will give you hints. You will find it very much easier than you imagine. You have only to be natural, acquire the art of listening, and wear pretty gowns, and you will find it a simple matter to become quite a popular person."
She nerved herself to ask him a question. He looked so kind and good-natured that it did not seem possible that he would resent it.
"Uncle," she said, "of course I am very glad to be here, and it all sounds very delightful. But what about—Stella?"
He leaned back in his chair. There was a pained look in his face. She was almost sorry that she had mentioned his daughter's name.
"Perhaps," he said, "it is as well that you should have asked me that question. I have always been an indulgent father, as I think you will find me an indulgent uncle. But there are certain things, certain offences I might say, for which I have no forgiveness. Stella deceived me. She made use of information, secret information which she acquired in this room, to benefit some man in whom she was interested. She used my secrets to enrich this person. She did this after I had warned her. I never warn twice."
"You mean that you sent her away?" she asked timidly.
"I mean that my doors are closed to her," he answered gravely, "as they would be closed upon you if you behaved as Stella has behaved. But, my dear child," he added, smiling kindly at her, "I do not expect this from you. I feel sure that what I have said will be sufficient. If you will stay with me a little time, and take my daughter's place, I think you will not find me very stern or very ungrateful. Now I am going to ring for Mrs. Perrin, my housekeeper, and she will show you your room. To-night you and I are going to dine quite alone, and we can talk again then. By the by, do you really mean that you have never been to New York before?"
"Never!" she answered. "I have been to Boston twice, never anywhere else."
"Well," he said, "the sooner you are introduced to some of its wonders, the better. We will dine out to-night, and I will take you to one of the famous restaurants. It will suit me better to be somewhere out of the way for an hour or two this evening. There is a panic in Chicago and Illinois—but there, you wouldn't understand that. Be ready at 8 o'clock."
"But uncle—" she began.
He waved his hand.
"I know what you are going to say—clothes. You will find some evening dresses in your room. I have had a collection of things sent round on approval, and you will probably be able to find one you can wear. Ah! here is Mrs. Perrin."
The door had opened, and a middle-aged lady in a stiff black silk gown had entered the room.
"Mrs. Perrin," he said, "this is my niece. She comes from the country. She knows nothing. Tell her everything that she ought to know. Help her with her clothes, and turn her out as well as you can to dine with me at Sherry's at eight o'clock."
A bell rang at his elbow, and one of the telephones began to tinkle. He picked up the receiver and waved them out of the room. Virginia followed her guide upstairs, feeling more and more with every step she took that she was indeed a wanderer in some new and enchanted land of the Arabian Nights.
"Well," he said, smiling kindly at her over the bank of flowers which occupied the centre of the small round table at which they were dining, "what do you think of it all?"
Virginia shook her head.
"I cannot tell you," she said. "I haven't any words left. It is all so wonderful. You have never been to our home at Wellham Springs, or else you would understand."
"I think I can understand," he said, "what it is like. I, too, you know, was brought up at a farmhouse."
Her eyes smiled at him across the table.
"You should see my room," she said, "at home. It is just about as large as the cupboard in which I am supposed to keep my dresses here."
"I hope," he said, "that you will like where Mrs. Perrin has put you."
"Like!" she gasped. "I don't believe that I could have ever imagined anything like it. Do you know that I have a big bathroom of my own, with a marble floor, and a sitting-room so beautiful that I am afraid almost to look into it. I don't believe I'll ever be able to go to bed."
"In a week," he said indulgently, "you will become quite used to these things. In a month you would miss them terribly if you had to give them up."
Her face was suddenly grave. He looked across at her keenly.
"What are you thinking of?" he asked.
"I was thinking," she answered, after a moment's hesitation, "of Stella. I was wondering what it must be to her to have to give up all these beautiful things."
His expression hardened a little. The smile had passed from his lips.
"You never knew your cousin, I think?" he asked.
"Never," she admitted.
"Then I do not think," he said, "that you need waste your sympathy upon her. Tell me, do you see that young lady in a mauve-coloured dress and a large hat, sitting three tables to the left of us?"
She looked across and nodded.
"Of course I do," she answered. "How handsome she is, and what a strange-looking man she has with her! He looks very clever."
Her uncle smiled once more, but his face lacked its benevolent expression.
"The man is clever," he answered. "His name is Norris Vine, and he is a journalist, part owner of a newspaper, I believe. He is one of those foolish persons who imagine themselves altruists, and who are always trying to force their opinions upon other people. The young lady with him—is my daughter and your cousin."
Virginia's great eyes were opened wider than ever. Her lips parted, showing her wonderful teeth. The pink colour stained her cheeks.
"Do you mean that that is Stella?" she exclaimed.
Her uncle nodded, and paused for a moment to give an order to a passing maitre d'hotel.
"Yes!" he resumed, "that is Stella, and that is the man for whose sake she robbed me."
Virginia was still full of wonder.
"But you did not speak to her when she came in!" she said. "You nodded to the man, but took no notice of her!"
"I do not expect," he said quietly, "ever to speak to her again. I have been a kind father; I think that on the whole I am a good-natured man, but there are things which I do not forgive, and which I should forgive my own flesh and blood less even than I should a stranger."
The colour faded from her cheeks.
"It seems terrible," she murmured.
"As for the man," he continued, "he is my enemy, although it is only a matter of occasional chances which can make him in any way formidable. We speak because we are enemies. When you have had a little more experience, you will find that that is how the game is played here."
She was silent for several minutes. Her uncle turned his head, and immediately two maitres d'hotel and several waiters came rushing up. He gave a trivial order and dismissed them. Then he looked across at his niece, whose appetite seemed suddenly to have failed her.
"Tell me," he said, "what is the matter with you, Virginia?"
"I am a little afraid of you," she answered frankly. "I should be a little afraid of any one who could talk like that about his own child."
He smiled softly.
"You have the quality," he said, "which I admire most in your sex, and find most seldom. You are candid. You come from a little world where sentiment almost governs life. It is not so here. I am a kind man, I believe, but I am also just. My daughter deceived me, and for deceit I have no forgiveness. Do you still think me cruel, Virginia?"
"I am wondering," she answered frankly. "You see, I have read about you in the papers, and I was terribly frightened when mother told me that I was to come. Directly I saw you, you seemed quite a different person, and now again I am afraid."
"Ah!" he sighed, "that terrible Press of ours! They told you, I suppose, that I was hard, unscrupulous, unforgiving, a money-making machine, and all the rest of it. Do you think that I look like that, Virginia?"
"I am very sure that you do not," she answered.
"You will know me better, I hope, in a year or so's time," he said. "If you wish to please me, there are two things which you have to remember, and which I expect from you. One is absolute, implicit obedience, the other is absolute, unvarying truth. You will never, I think, have cause to complain of me, if you remember those two things."
"I will try," she murmured.
Her thoughts suddenly flitted back to the poor little home from which she had come with such high hopes. She thought of the excitement which had followed the coming of her uncle's letter; the hopes that her harassed, overworked father had built upon it; the sudden, almost trembling joy which had come into her mother's thin, faded face. Her first taste of luxury suddenly brought before her eyes, stripped bare of everything except its pitiful cruelty, that ceaseless struggle for life in which it seemed to her that all of them had been engaged, year after year. She shivered a little as she thought of them, shivered for fear she should fail now that the chance had come of some day being able to help them. Absolute obedience, absolute truth! If these two things were all, she could hold on, she was sure of it.
A messenger boy was brought in, and delivered a letter to her uncle. He read and destroyed it at once.
"There is no answer," he said.
The messenger protested.
"I am to wait, sir, until you give me one," he said. "The gentleman said it was most important. I was to find you anywhere, anyhow, and get an answer of some sort."
"How much," Mr. Phineas Duge asked, "were you to receive if you took back an answer?"
"The gentleman promised me a dollar, sir," the boy answered.
Mr. Duge put his hand into his pocket.
"Here are two dollars," he said. "Go away at once. There is no answer. There will not be one. You can tell Mr. Hamilton that I said so."
The boy departed. Her uncle looked across at Virginia and smiled. "That is how we have to buy immunity from small annoyances here," he said. "All the time it is the same thing—dollars, dollars, dollars! That messenger boy was clever to get in. When we leave this restaurant, you will find that there are at least half a dozen people waiting to speak to me. It will be telephoned to several places in the city that I am dining here to-night. From where I am sitting, I can see two reporters standing by the entrance. They are waiting for me."
She looked at him with interested eyes.
"But why?" she asked timidly.
"Oh! it is simply a matter," he said, "of the money-markets. I have been doing some things during the last few days which people don't quite understand. They don't know whether to follow me or stand away, and the Press doesn't know how to explain my actions; so you see I am watched. You heard what I said," he asked, somewhat abruptly, "about those two things, obedience and truth?"
"Yes!" she answered.
"They say," he resumed, "that a wise man trusts no one. I, on the other hand, do not believe this. There are times when one must trust. Your mother and your father were both as honest as people could be, whatever their other faults may have been. I like your face. I believe that you, too, are honest."
"Remember," she said, smiling, "that I have never been tempted."
"There could be no bidders for your faithfulness," he answered, "whom I could not outbid. I am going to trust you, Virginia. There are sometimes occasions when I do things, or am concerned in matters, which not even my secretaries have any idea of. You only, in the future, will know. I think, dear, that we shall get on very well together. I am not going to offer you a great deal of money, because you would not know what to do with it, but so long as you remain with me, and serve me in the way that I direct, I am going to do what I feel I ought to have done long ago for your people down at Wellham Springs."
Her face shone, and her beautiful eyes were more brilliant still with unshed tears.
"Uncle!" she murmured breathlessly.
"That will do," he said. "I only wanted you to understand. For the next week or two, all that you have to do is to get used to your position. The small services which I shall require of you will commence later on. Now try some of that ice. It has been prepared specially. How do you like our New York cooking?"
"It is all too marvellous," she declared.
Then there came a sudden interruption. She heard the rustle of a gown close to their table, and looking up found to her amazement that it was Stella who was standing there.
"So you are my cousin!" Stella said, "little Virginia! I only saw you once before, but I should have known you anywhere by your eyes. No! of course you don't remember me! You see I am six years older. I mustn't stop, because, as I dare say you know, I am not on speaking terms with my father, but I felt that I must just shake hands with you, and tell you that I remembered you."
"You are very kind," Virginia faltered.
Her uncle had risen to his feet, and was standing in an attitude of polite inattention, as though some perfect stranger had addressed the lady who was under his care. He appeared quite indifferent; in his daughter's voice there had not been the slightest trace of any sentiment. A careless word or two passed between him and the man Norris Vine, who was waiting for Stella. Then they passed out together, and Phineas Duge calmly resumed his chair. Virginia, who had expected to find him angry, was herself amazed.
"By the by," Mr. Duge said, as he lit a cigarette, "always remember what I told you about that man. Be especially on your guard if ever you are brought into contact with him. I happen to know that he registered a vow, a year ago, that before five years were past he would ruin me."
"I will remember," Virginia faltered.
Mr. Phineas Duge, since the death of his wife, had closed his doors to all his friends, and entertained only on rare occasions a few of the men with whom he was connected in his many business enterprises. On the arrival of Virginia, however, he lifted his finger, and Society stormed at his doors. The great reception rooms were thrown open, the servants were provided with new liveries, an entertainment office was given carte blanche to engage the usual run of foreign singers and the best known mountebanks of the moment. Mrs. Trevor Harrison, the woman whom he had selected as chaperon for Virginia, more than once displayed some curiosity, when talking to her charge, as to this sudden change in the habits of a man whose lack of sociability had become almost proverbial.
"If it were not, my dear," she said one day to Virginia, when they were having tea together in her own more modest apartment, "that I firmly believe your uncle incapable of any affection for any one, we should all have to believe that he had lost his heart to you."
Virginia, who had heard other remarks of the same nature, looked puzzled.
"I cannot see," she exclaimed, "why every one speaks of my uncle as a heartless person. I do not think that I ever met any one more kind, and he looks it, too. I do not think that I ever saw any one with such a benevolent face."
Mrs. Trevor Harrison laughed softly as she rocked herself in her chair.
"Dear child," she said, "New York has known your uncle for twenty-five years, and suffered for him. These men who make great fortunes must make them at the expense of other people, and there are very many who have gone down to make Phineas Duge what he is."
"I cannot understand it," Virginia said.
"Your uncle," Mrs. Trevor Harrison continued, "has a will of iron, is absolutely self-centered; sentiment has never swayed him in the least. He has climbed up on the bodies of weaker men. But there, in America we blame no one for that. It is the strong man who lives, and the others must die. Only I cannot quite understand this new development. I have never known your uncle to do a purposeless thing."
"You say," Virginia remarked slowly, "that he has no heart. Why did he send for me, then? Since I have been here, he has paid off the mortgage which was making my father an old man, he has sent my brother to college, and has promised, so long as I am with him, to allow them so much money that they have no more anxiety at all. If you only knew what a change this has made in all our lives, you would understand that I do not like to hear you say that my uncle has no heart."
Mrs. Trevor Harrison stopped rocking her chair, and looked at the girl thoughtfully.
"Well," she said, "what you tell me sounds very strange. Still, I don't see what motive he could have had for doing all this."
"Why should you suspect a motive?" Virginia demanded.
"Because he is Phineas Duge," Mrs. Harrison said drily. "But there, my dear child, I mustn't say a word against your uncle. He has been nice enough to me because I have promised to look after you. Does he want me to marry you, I wonder? I don't think that it would be very difficult."
Virginia blushed, and moved uneasily in her chair.
"Please don't," she begged. "I do not wish to think of anything of the sort. My uncle says that presently I am to help him."
"To help him," Mrs. Trevor Harrison repeated thoughtfully.
"Yes! I don't exactly know how, but that is what he said."
Her chaperon looked thoughtful for a moment. So there was a motive somewhere, then! But, after all, what concern was it of hers? She was an old friend of the Duge family, and Phineas Duge had made it very well worth her while to look after his niece.
They were interrupted by some callers. It was an informal "At Home" which Mrs. Harrison was giving in honour of her young charge. Soon the rooms were crowded with people, and Virginia, slim, elegant, perfectly gowned, looking like a picture, with her pale oval face and wonderful dark grey eyes, was the centre of a good deal of attention. And in the midst of it all a girl, whom as yet she had not noticed, touched her on the arm and drew her a little away. She started with surprise when she saw that it was Stella.
"Come, my dear cousin," Stella said, "I want to have a little talk with you. Won't you sit down with me here? I am sure you have been doing your duty admirably."
Virginia was a little shy. She was not quite sure whether she ought to talk to her cousin. Nevertheless, she obeyed the stronger personality.
"Of course I know," Stella said, spreading herself out on a sofa, and smiling in amusement at the other's slight embarrassment, "that I am in disgrace with my beloved parent, and that you are half afraid to talk to me. Still, you must remember that you owe me a little consideration, for you have taken my place, and turned me out into the cold world."
"You must not talk like that, please," Virginia said quietly. "You know very well that I have done nothing of the sort. When my uncle sent for me, I had no idea that you were not still living with him."
"I lived with him for three years," Stella said, "after I had come back from Europe. I call that a very wonderful record. I give you about three months."
"I don't know why you should say this," Virginia answered. "I find my uncle very easy to get on with so long as he is obeyed."
"Ah, well!" she said, "I don't want to dishearten you, only you seem rather a nice little thing, and I am afraid you don't quite understand the sort of man my father is. However, you'll find out, and until you do I should have as good a time as I could if I were you. How do you like New York?"
"How could I help liking it?" Virginia answered. "I came here from a little wooden farmhouse in a desolate part of the country. I did not know what luxury was. Here I have a maid, a suite of rooms, an automobile, and all manner of wonderful things, all of my own."
"Will you be willing," Stella asked calmly, "to pay the price when the time comes?"
Virginia looked at her wonderingly.
"The price?" she asked. "What do you mean?"
Stella laughed a little hardly.
"Little girl," she said, "you are very young. Let me tell you this. My father never did a kind action in his life for its own sake. He never befriended any one for any other motive than that some day or other he meant to exact some return for it. Your time hasn't come yet, but there will be something some day which will help you to understand."
Virginia sat upright in her seat. A very becoming touch of colour had stolen into her cheeks, and her eyes were bright.
"I like to talk to you, Stella," she said, "because you are my cousin, and none of these other people are even my friends yet, but I cannot listen to you if you talk like this of the man who has been so kind to me, especially," she added, "as he is your father and my uncle."
Stella leaned over and patted her hand patronizingly.
"Silly little girl!" she said. "Never mind, we shall be friends some day, I dare say. You daren't come and see me, I suppose?"
Virginia shook her head.
"Not without my uncle's permission," she said.
"Quite right," Stella agreed. "Don't run any risks. We shall come across one another now and then, especially since my father seems determined to throw open his doors once more to the usual mob. By the by, does he ever say anything about me?"
"Nothing," Virginia answered, "except that you deceived him. He has told me that."
"Any particulars?" Stella asked.
"I am not sure," Virginia said, "that I ought to repeat them."
Stella sat quite still for a moment, and a slight frown was on her forehead.
"He has told you, then, why he sent me away?" she asked.
"Yes!" Virginia answered.
Stella shrugged her shoulders and rose.
"Well," she said, "I mustn't monopolize you any longer, or I shall be in disgrace."
She walked away with a little nod, leaving behind her a faint but uncomfortable impression. Virginia, an hour or so later, thought it best to tell her uncle of this meeting. They were standing together in one of the reception rooms, waiting for some guests who were coming to dine, and were alone except for a couple of footmen, who were lighting a huge candelabrum of wax candles.
"Uncle," Virginia said, "I met Stella this afternoon, and she came and spoke to me."
He looked at her without change of countenance.
"Well?" he said.
"I thought I ought to tell you," Virginia continued. "I was not sure how you felt about it."
"I have no objection," he said, resting his hand for a moment upon her shoulder, "to your talking to her whenever you may happen to meet. Only remember one thing! She must not enter this house. You must never ask her here. You must never suffer her to come. You understand that?"
"I understand," Virginia answered.
"And this man Vine, Mr. Norris Vine, have you met him?" he asked.
Virginia shook her head.
"No!" she said, "I have never seen him since that night at the restaurant."
"The same thing," Phineas Duge said, "applies to him. Neither of them must cross the threshold of this house. It is a hard thing to say of one's own daughter, but those two are in league against me, if their combination is worth speaking of seriously."
Virginia looked hopelessly puzzled. Phineas Duge hesitated for a moment, and then continued—
"There are phases of our life here," he said, "which you could not hope to understand, even if you had been born in this city. But you can perhaps understand as much as this. In the higher regions of finance there is very much scheming and diplomacy required. One carries always secrets which must not be known, and one does things which it is necessary to conceal for the good of others, as well as for one's own benefit. I have been for some years engaged in operations whose success depends entirely upon the secrecy with which they are conducted. Naturally, there is an opposing side, there always must be. There are buyers and sellers. If one succeeds, the other must fail, so you can understand that one has enemies always."
"It sounds," she murmured, "almost romantic, like diplomacy or politics."
"The secret history of the lives and operations of some of us, who have made names in this country during the last few years," he said, "would make the modern romance seem stale. Even odd scraps of news or surmises are fought for by the Press. The journalists know well enough where to come for their sensation. Our guests at last, I believe. Don't forget what I have been saying to you, Virginia."
A MEETING OF GIANTS
Phineas Duge, if his manners preserved still that sense of restraint which seemed part of the man himself, still made an excellent host. He sat at the head of his table, a distinguished, almost handsome personality, his grey hair accurately parted, every detail of his toilette in exact accordance with the fashions of the moment, his eyes everywhere, his tongue seldom silent.
Virginia watched him more than once from her seat, in half-unwilling admiration. She was ashamed to admit that her personal enthusiasm for him had in any way abated, and yet she was becoming conscious of that absolute lack of any real cordiality, of any evidence of affection in his demeanour towards her and every one else with whom he was brought into contact. She knew very well what the world's account of him was, for in the old days they had read sketches of his career up in the little farmhouse amongst the mountains. They had read of his indomitable will, of his absolute heartlessness, the stern, persistent individuality which climbs and climbs, heedless of those who must fall by the way. Perhaps he was really like this. Perhaps her first impressions had been wrong. Then, with a sudden wave of shame, she remembered the joyous, affectionate letters which every post brought her from the home, which notwithstanding all her sufferings, she had loved so dearly. She looked down at the pearls which hung from her neck. She saw herself in her spotless muslin gown. She felt the touch of laces and silk, all the nameless effect of this environment of luxury thrilled in her blood. It was better, she decided, that she did not think of the future at all. It was better that she should nurse the gratitude which she most assuredly felt.
The dinner-party that night consisted of men only, and although the conversation was fairly general, even Virginia had a suspicion that these men had not been brought together absolutely as ordinary guests for social purposes. Lightly though they all talked, there was something in the background. More than once the voices were lowered, allusions were made which she failed to understand, and half-doubting glances were thrown in her direction. One of these her uncle appeared to notice, and, leaning a little forward in his chair, he said a few words to the man at his side in such a way that they were obviously intended for the information of all.
"My niece," he said, "is going to take the part which I had once hoped my daughter might fill. If the occasion arises, you can speak of any matter of business in which we may be interested, before her. It is necessary," he continued, after a slight pause, "that there should be some one in my household who is above suspicion, I might almost say, above temptation. My niece will hold that post."
Then they all looked at her, and Virginia was a little frightened. It did not seem to her necessary, however, to say anything. Two of the men she met for the first time, but all were known to her by sight. There was Stephen Weiss, the head of a great trust, long, lean, with inscrutable face, and eyes hidden behind thick spectacles; Higgins, who virtually controlled a great railway system; Littleson and Bardsley, millionaires both, and politicians. It was a gathering of men of almost limitless power; men who, according to some of the papers, lived with their hands upon their country's throat. Littleson leaned over and spoke to her not unkindly.
"I am sure," he said, "that your uncle has made a wise choice. There are some secrets too great to be in one man's charge alone, and besides—"
Phineas Duge lifted his hand.
"Never mind the rest," he said. "I have not explained those circumstances as yet to my niece. If you are quite ready, we will take our coffee in the library." He turned to Virginia, who had risen at once to leave them. "In an hour and a half exactly, Virginia," he said, "come into the library. Not before."
She glanced at her watch and made a note of the hour. Then she wandered off to one of the smaller drawing-rooms, and, to relieve a certain strain of which she was somehow conscious, she played the piano softly. In the middle of a nocturne of Chopin's the door was opened, and a young man was shown into the room.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "you are Miss Longworth?"
She rose at once from the piano seat. He was not dressed for the evening, and he carried a felt hat in his hand. Nevertheless his bearing was pleasant enough, and he seemed to her a gentleman.
"I am Miss Longworth," she answered. "You want to see my uncle, I suppose? They have made a mistake in showing you in here."
"Not at all," he answered, with an ingratiating smile. "I know that your uncle is very busy, so I took the liberty of asking to see you. It is such a simple matter I required, that it was not worth while interrupting him. My name is Carr, and I am on the World. There was just an ordinary question or two I was going to put to your uncle, but you can answer them just as well if you will."
"You mean you are a reporter?" she asked.
"That's it," he assented. "Odd sort of life in a way, because it sends us round seeking sometimes for the most trivial information. For instance, your uncle had a dinner-party to-night, and I have stepped round for a list of the guests."
"I do not see," she answered slowly, "what possible concern that can be of your paper's."
He smiled indulgently.
"Ah, Miss Longworth!" he said, "you have just come from the country, I believe. You do not understand the way we do things in New York. Your uncle is a famous man, and the public who buy papers to-day are dead keen upon knowing even the most trifling things that such men do. In fact, I have been sent all the way up from down town simply to find out that simple matter. Of course, I could have asked the servants, but we always prefer to get our information from one of the family where possible. Now, let me see. Mr. Weiss was here, of course?"
Virginia hesitated, but only for a moment.
"If you really wish for these details," she said, "you must ask my uncle. I do not care to tell you."
"But say, isn't that rather rough upon your uncle?" he asked doubtfully. "We can't bother him with every little thing. Surely there can be nothing indiscreet in your giving me the names of your guests. Most people send them to the papers themselves."
"I do not know," Virginia said, "whether my uncle would wish me to do so. In any case, I shall do nothing without his consent."
The young man frowned slightly. This was not to be so easy as he thought.
"Well," he said, "I can get the names from your servants, without bothering your uncle. Must be rather interesting for you, Miss Longworth, to hear these famous men talk,"
She shook her head.
"I do not understand one half of what they say," she answered, "but what I do understand doesn't sound in the least wonderful."
He smiled appreciatively.
"I can quite understand that," he said; "but there must have been some of the conversation that you understood. For instance, the Anti-Trust Bill that is coming before the House in a few weeks. They ought to have said some interesting things about that."
Virginia moved calmly across the room, and before the young man had perceived her intention she had rung the bell.
"I think," she said, "that you are a very impertinent person. Please go away at once."
He shrugged his shoulders as he turned towards the door. His expression was still entirely good-humoured.
"Don't be angry with me, Miss Longworth," he said, as he paused for a moment with his hand upon the knob of the door; "it's all in my day's work, you know. One has to try and find out these things, or one wouldn't be worth one's place. We had word down at the office that you had just come from the country, and that something might be done with you."
"And I think it was most unfair and ungentlemanly," Virginia began.
"It seems so, I dare say," he admitted, "from your point of view; but you must remember, Miss Longworth, that it is all part of a game which is played here all the time. Each side knows the other's moves; there is no deceit about it. Men like your uncle, who want to cover up their actions, take as much pains to hoodwink us, and use any means that occur to them to keep us in the dark when they want to. They just make use of us, and we have to try and make use of them. Good night, Miss Longworth!"
He left the room, and Virginia returned to the piano. Her fingers were shaking, however, and she was unable to play. She took up a book and tried to read. All the time she kept glancing at the clock. At last she rose to her feet and left the room. The hour and a half was up.
Somewhat to Virginia's surprise, when at last she stepped with beating heart into the library, she found her uncle alone. He was sitting in front of his open desk, a pile of papers before him, and a long, black-looking cigar between his teeth. Scarcely glancing up, he motioned her to a seat.
"In five minutes," he said, "I shall want to talk to you."
She sat down in one of the chairs, now vacant, which had been drawn up to the study table. The air of the room was heavy with tobacco smoke, and there were empty liqueur glasses upon the sideboard. Yet Virginia somehow felt that it was not only to take their after-dinner coffee, and enjoy a chat over their cigars, that these men had met together around the table before which she was sitting. She had the feeling somehow that things had been happening in that little room, of which she and Phineas Duge were now the only occupants.
She turned her head suddenly. Her uncle was looking at her. His eyes had lost their far-away gleam, and were fixed upon hers, cold and expressionless.
"Yes, uncle!" she said.
"I want to talk to you for a few moments," he said. "Listen, and don't interrupt."
She leaned a little toward him in an attitude of attention. The words seemed to frame themselves slowly upon his lips.
"You have been wondering, I suppose, like all the rest of the world," he began, "why I sent for you here. I am going to tell you. But first of all let me know this. Are you satisfied with what I have done for you, and for your people? In other words, have you any feeling of what people, I believe, call gratitude towards me?"
"I wonder that you can ask me that," she answered, a little tremulously. "You know that I am very, very grateful indeed."
"You like your life?" he asked. "You find it"—he hesitated for a moment—"more amusing than at Wellham Springs?"
"I am only an ordinary girl," she answered simply, "and you must realize what the difference means. Life there was a sort of struggle which led nowhere. Here I don't see how any one could be happier than I. Apart from that, what you have done for the others counts, I think, for more than anything with me."
"I am glad," he answered, "that you are satisfied. You think, perhaps, from what you have seen since you came here that the power of money has no limits. I can tell you that it has very fixed and definite limits, and it was when I realized them that I sent for you. I hope to gain from you what in all New York I should not know where to buy."
She was careful not to interrupt him, but her eyes were full of mute questions.
"I mean," he continued, "fidelity, absolute unswerving fidelity. The four men who have been here to-night call themselves my friends. We are leagued together in enterprises of immense importance. Yet take them one by one, and there is not one whom I can trust. I have proved it. I pay my two secretaries more highly than any other employer in the city. They do their duty, but I know very well that they only wait for some one else to outbid me, and they would take themselves and their knowledge of my affairs to whoever might call them. It has become necessary that there should be one person in whose charge I can repose the knowledge of certain things. New York does not hold such a person. That is why I have sent for you."
He paused so long that she ignored his injunction of silence.
"You know very well, uncle," she said, "that I am not clever, and that I understand nothing whatever about business, or anything to do with it, but I can at least promise that I will be faithful. That seems a very poor reward for all that you have done for me."
"Yes!" he answered, "I believe that you mean that. Now I must tell you this, that these four men who have dined with me here to-night, with myself, are under a solemn covenant to conduct all our operations upon the market and in finance, whether in this country or in Europe, absolutely in unison. We control practically an unlimited capital, and we pool all profits. We never speculate individually, at least that is a condition of our agreement. You may not understand this, but such a combination as ours, honestly adhered to, can do what it likes with the money-markets anywhere. We can bend them to our will. We buy or sell, and our profits are sure. We keep our agreement secret, but even then it is guessed at. I can assure you that we are probably the five best hated men in America. During the last two years we have made great fortunes. Our system is perfect. So far as the acquisition of wealth goes, there could be no object in any treachery, and yet one of these five men is playing a double game, if not more."
"You have found him out?" she asked breathlessly.
He shook his head.
"It is not so easy," he said, "only I know. To-night," he continued, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, "a new suspicion has come to me. I have an idea that there is a scheme, in which all four are concerned, for ruining me and sharing the plunder,"
"It is infamous!" she cried, turning pale.
He smiled slowly. It was the smile she hated. It seemed to change his face from the similitude of a benevolent divine to something hard, almost satanic.
"The odds," he continued, "seem heavy, but I have known one man hold his own against four before now. You may not understand all these different points, but I must tell you this. All through America, we millionaires, who operate largely upon the markets and control the finances of the country, are hated by the middle classes. We are hated by the merchants, the fairly well-off people, the labouring classes, and, more than any others, perhaps, by the politicians. Last month it was decided to strike a dangerous blow at us and our interests. A bill is to come before the Senate before very long which is framed purposely to undermine our power. Can you understand that?"
"I think so," she answered.
"It was to discuss this," he continued, "that we met to-night. I laid a trap for my four friends, and they fell into it. They have signed a document pledging themselves to resist this bill, in such a fashion that their doing so renders them parties to an illegal conspiracy. That document is in my possession. They all signed it, and it was left for me to be the last. No one noticed that my name was written across a piece of paper laid over the document itself. Now this I keep as a hostage over them. Sooner or later, when their plans mature, it will occur to them what they have done. They will remember that, so long as I hold this document, I have them in my power. Weiss was uneasy before he left the room to-night. In less than a week they will be trying to regain possession of that document under some pretext or other. I am going to show you where I keep it."
He pushed his chair away and pulled up the rug from beneath it. Even then Virginia, who had obeyed his gesture and was standing by his side, could see nothing unusual in the appearance of the hardwood floor. She watched his finger, however, count the cracks from a knot in the wood. Then he pressed a certain spot, and one of the blocks sprang up a little way and was easily removed. Beneath it was the steel lid of a small coffer, with two keyholes.
"This is my hiding-place," he said calmly, "and these," he added, "are the keys."
He laid before her two keys of curious device, and he took from a drawer in his desk a thin chain of platinum and gold.
"Now," he said, "you are going to be the guardian of these keys. You are going to wear this chain around your neck all the time, and the keys are going in here."
He drew from his pocket a gold locket, and touching the spring showed her that inside, instead of any place for a photograph, were little embedded pads of velvet, shaped for the keys. He placed them in and hung the locket around her neck. She looked at it, half terrified.
"I do not understand," she said, "why you trust me with this. Surely it would be safer with you!"
He smiled grimly.
"You do not know my friends," he said. "Remember that in my possession is not only the document which must cause them to abandon their great scheme of attack upon me, but also that that same document, if made proper use of, means ruin and ridicule for them. New York is a civilized city, it is true, but money can buy the assassin's pistol to-day as easily as it bought the bravo's knife a few hundred years ago. Have you ever thought of the number of unexplained, if not undetected crimes you read of continually, in which the victims are generally rich men? Perhaps not, and you need not worry your little head about it, but take my word for it, the keys are safer with you."
Virginia laid her hand tremulously upon the locket.
"They shall be safe," she said, "but tell me this. I am never to give them up to any one but you?"
"Never under any conditions," he answered.
"Not even," she asked, "if any one should bring a written message from you?"
"Distrust it," he answered. "Do not give them up. Into my hands only, remember that."
The telephone bell rang suddenly at his elbow. Phineas Duge took off the receiver and held it to his ear. The quiet, measured voice of Stephen Weiss came travelling along the wire.
"Say, Duge, I am half inclined to think we made a mistake in signing that paper," he said. "Of course, I know it's safe in your keeping, but I don't fancy my name standing written on a document that means quite what that means. I fancy that Higgins is a little nervous, too. We'll meet and talk it over to-morrow night."
Phineas Duge smiled faintly as he answered—
"Just as you like, only I must tell you that I entirely disagree. Unless we strike, and strike quickly, that bill will become law, and we shall all have to print a European address upon our notepaper, if we get as far."
"I speak for the others, too," Weiss continued. "We'll meet right here to-morrow night to discuss it. Say at eight o'clock."
Phineas Duge laid down the receiver and turned away.
"Well," he said, "this will become interesting. They will not strike now until they have got hold of that foolish paper. If they are all determined to get it back, and I resist, they will know that the game is up, and that I have seen through their little scheme. This must be thought about. Virginia, do I look ill?"
She shook her head.
"I thought you were looking very well, uncle," she said.
He locked up his desk, and looked down to see that the surface of the carpet was unruffled.
"To-morrow," he said, "I am going to be very ill indeed!"
MR. WEISS IN A HURRY
Virginia walked along Fifth Avenue, enjoying the sunshine, the crowds of people, and the effect of a new hat. Every now and then she stopped to look in a shop, and more than once she smiled to herself as she remembered how she had escaped from her uncle's house by flitting out of the side entrance. For she had found herself within the last few hours a very important person indeed. From the moment the doctor's carriage had stopped before the door, a little stream of callers, reporters, business friends, and others whom she knew nothing of, had thronged the place, unwilling to depart without some definite news of this unexpected illness, and all of them anxious to obtain a word or two with her. Already a "Special" was being sold on the streets, and in big black letters she read of the alarming illness of Phineas Duge. She had left both his secretaries, young men with whom as yet she had exchanged only a few words, hard at work opening letters and answering telegrams. She alone was free from all anxiety, for she had had a few words with her uncle before she came out, and at her entrance the languor of the sick man disappeared at once, and he had spoken to her with something of the enjoyment of a boy enjoying a huge joke.
She paused every now and then to look in the shop windows, and make a few purchases. Then, just as she was leaving a store, and hesitating for a moment which way to continue her walk, a man stopped suddenly before her and raised his hat. It was Stephen Weiss, gaunt, ill-dressed, easily recognizable. He was evidently glad to see her.
"This is real good fortune, Miss Longworth," he said, holding her hand in his, as though afraid that she might slip away. "I have just left your house, but I couldn't seem to get hold of anything very definite about this sudden attack of your uncle's."
"I know very little about it myself," Virginia answered. "The doctor had only just been when I came away. He said, I believe, that it was only a matter of a complete rest for several days, perhaps a week, and then possibly a short holiday."
Mr. Weiss shook his head thoughtfully.
"I am much relieved to hear that," he declared. "Your uncle is one of my oldest friends, and, apart from that, we are concerned in one or two very important speculations just now, things which you, young lady, would scarcely understand; but it would be awkward if he were laid up."
"The doctor thinks," Virginia remarked, "that he will be able to attend to anything very necessary in four or five days. They will not allow him, however, even to look at a newspaper until then."
Mr. Weiss nodded thoughtfully.
"You were going back toward the house, I see," he remarked. "Permit me to walk with you a little way."
Virginia hesitated for a moment.
"I have a little more shopping to do," she said. "I was not going home just yet."
Mr. Weiss, however, was already leading her across the street.
"My dear young lady," he said, "I have something very important to say to you. I am sure you will not mind going back to the house with me now and continuing your walk afterwards. It is in your uncle's interests as much as my own."
She allowed herself to be led along, and when they had reached the other side of the Avenue, Stephen Weiss, speaking earnestly, and stooping a little towards her, commenced his explanation.
"Your uncle," he said, "and three or four of us whom you met last night, are engaged just now in a very important undertaking. I cannot explain it to you, but it involves a great many millions of dollars, more than we could any of us afford to lose, although, as you know, we are none of us poor men. Now we can carry this thing right through without bothering your uncle, and make a success of it, but there is just one thing we must have, and that is a paper which he has locked away in his study, and which is a sort of key to the situation. I spoke to your uncle about it last night over the telephone, and he agreed to have it ready for me when I called this morning. I could not find any one at the house, however, who had received instructions about it, so I concluded that he had perhaps left word with you."
"No!" she answered, "he has not told me anything."
"Miss Longworth," he continued, laying his hand for a moment upon her arm, "you know from what your uncle said last night that we are all practically his partners. Now in his interests and all of ours, and naturally therefore in yours, we must have that paper. When we get home, just step into your uncle's room and say one sentence to him. Say that I am downstairs. He will know what I want, and I am sure he will tell you to give it to me. I hate to have to bother him just now, but I can assure you that it would do him a good deal more harm just when he is pulling round, to find that we were all on the wrong side of things, than to have just one sentence breathed into his ear now."
Virginia seemed to hesitate.
"The doctor's orders," she remarked, "were very strict. I am sure I don't know what to say."
"Doctors," Mr. Weiss said, "are all very well, but they do not know everything. Just those few words from you can do your uncle no possible harm, and they may save him a very bad relapse later on. I wouldn't press this thing, my dear young lady, if I wasn't convinced of its tremendous importance. You can trust me about that."
Virginia walked on for a few steps in silence. They were approaching her uncle's house, and already a small crowd of people were collected, reading the bulletin which was hung upon the railings. Mr. Weiss stopped short.
"Isn't there any way of getting in without being seen by all this crowd?" he asked. "They'll worry us to death with questions."
She nodded, and led him round the back way. Even here they were caught, however, by a reporter, whom Mr. Weiss brushed unceremoniously away. Virginia took her companion into a morning-room upon the ground floor, and motioned him to a chair.
"If you will wait here," she said, "I'll go upstairs and see my uncle. If I see that it is in any way possible, I will do as you ask."
"That's good," he declared. "If you don't mind, Miss Longworth, I'll just step into the study, where we were last night. I dare say one of your uncle's young men will be there, and there are a few minor details I'd like to talk over with young Smedley, if he's about."
"I will find Mr. Smedley for you," Virginia said, "when I come down. I am sure that he is not in the library, because my uncle uses that always as his private room. Please wait here until I come down."
She left him and made her way upstairs. The door of her uncle's bedroom was guarded by his man servant, who allowed her, however, to pass. Inside the room Phineas Duge was sitting in an easy-chair, carefully dressed, smoking a cigarette, and with a pile of newspapers by his side. On the table a few feet away was a telephone, the receiver of which he had just laid down.
"Well," he asked, looking up as she entered, "have they made a move yet?"
"I met Mr. Weiss on Fifth Avenue," she said. "He explained that you were all partners in some business undertaking of very great importance. Then he went on to say that they could carry it on all right without you, but that they must have one paper, which he said was the key to the position. He remarked that he had telephoned to you last night about it, and he is quite sure that you will give me orders to find it and give it up to him. He persuaded me even, you see, to break the doctor's orders."
Phineas Duge smiled quietly.
"I am too ill to be disturbed about such things," he said, lighting a fresh cigarette. "I do not know what paper he means. If you come and talk to me again about business matters, I shall send for the doctor. It is most unreasonable. By the by, where did you leave Mr. Weiss?"
"In the morning-room," she answered. "He wanted to go into the library, and he wanted to see Smedley, but I told him to wait where he was till I got down."
"I hope you will find him there," Phineas Duge said. "He can see Smedley if he wants to, on your responsibility of course. Those boys know nothing. Come up and tell me how he takes it."
Virginia went down to the morning-room and found it empty. She crossed the hall, opened the door of the outer library softly, and passed with swift silent footsteps into the smaller apartment. Mr. Weiss was standing there before her uncle's closed desk, regarding it contemplatively. He looked up quickly as she entered.
"Don't think I am taking a liberty, Miss Longworth," he said calmly. "This place has been a sort of office for us, and your uncle lets us do about as we please here. I trust you are going to unlock that desk and give me the paper I want."
Virginia shook her head slowly.
"I am sorry," she said, "but my uncle will not discuss business matters at all. He did not seem to remember anything about a paper, and he said that everything must wait until his head is a little clearer. I am sorry I disturbed him. I am afraid that the doctor will be very angry with me."
Mr. Weiss' face, clean-shaven and lined, with his spectacled eyes and thin, indrawn lips, was as expressionless as a face could be, but Virginia heard him draw a quick little breath, and his very attitude seemed to be the attitude of a man confronted with calamity.
"Miss Longworth," he said slowly, "this is very unfortunate."
"I am sorry," she answered.
"Will you sit down?" he said. "I have something to say to you."
She shook her head.
"I am afraid that I cannot stay now," she said. "I have so many things to do, and so many notes to write."
His spectacled eyes looked right into hers.
"This," he said quietly, "is important. There are times, Miss Longworth, when the junior in command of a great enterprise is faced with a crisis, when he or she is forced to act upon their own responsibility. The person who is great enough to rise to an occasion like this is the person who wins and deserves success in life. You follow me, Miss Longworth?"
"I suppose so," Virginia answered, a little doubtfully, although in her heart she understood him very well indeed.
"Miss Longworth," he said, "have you pluck enough to save us all several millions of dollars, and to make your uncle grateful to you for life? In other words, will you help me look for that paper?"
"Without my uncle's permission?" she asked.
"Without a permission which he would give you in one moment," Mr. Weiss declared, "if he was in a fit state to look after his own affairs. Come, you shall not have to wait until he recovers. For a part of your reward, at any rate, there is a pearl necklace in Streeter's, which I saw yesterday marked forty thousand dollars. It shall be yours within half an hour of the time I get that paper, and I guarantee that your uncle will give you another like it when he knows what you have done."
Virginia shook her head sorrowfully. Her great eyes seemed full of real regret.
"Mr. Weiss," she said, "I am too dull and stupid to dare to do things on my own account. I can only obey, and I am afraid all these beautiful rewards are not for me. Even if my uncle sends me away when he gets well, I must do exactly as he told me, no more, nor any less, and one of those things," she added, turning and pressing the electric bell in the wall by her side, "was that no one, no one at all, should enter this room."
Mr. Weiss stood quite still. He seemed to be thinking, but Virginia could see that his hands were tightly clenched, and the bones of his long sinewy fingers were standing out, straining against the flesh.
"I am disappointed in you, Miss Longworth," he said. "You have a great opportunity. It need not be only a matter of the necklace—"
She held out her hands.
"You mustn't!" she begged. "I am too frightened of my uncle."
Then she turned suddenly and opened the door to the servant, whose approaching footsteps she had heard.
"Will you please show Mr. Weiss out?" she said. "He is in rather a hurry."
Mr. Weiss went without a word.
A PROFESSIONAL BURGLAR
There were three men in New York that day, who, although they occupied their accustomed table, the best in one of its most exclusive clubs, and although their luncheon was chosen with the usual care, were never really conscious of what they were eating. Weiss was one, John Bardsley another, and Higgins, the railway man, the third. They sat in a corner, from which their conversation could not be overheard; and as often before when their heads had been close together, people looked across at them, always with interest, often with some envy, and wondered.
"I'd like you both to understand," Weiss said, speaking with unaccustomed emphasis as he leaned across the table, "that I don't like the look of things. We tackled something pretty big when we tackled Phineas Duge, and if he has the least idea that these Chicago brokers have been operating on our behalf, it's my belief we shall find ourselves up against it."
Higgins, who was the optimist of the party, a small man, with the unlined, clear complexion and face of a boy, shrugged his shoulders a little doubtfully.
"That's all very well, Weiss," he said, "but if Phineas had been going to find us out at all, he'd have found us out three weeks ago, when the thing started. He wouldn't have sat still and let us sell ten million dollars' worth of stock without moving his little finger. I guess you've got the jumps, Weiss, all because we were d——-d fools enough to sign that rotten paper last night. All the same I don't quite see how he could ever use that against us. His own name's there."
"I'm not so sure of that," Weiss said quietly. "I tell you it occurred to me to look across just as he was blotting the page, and I saw that he had his arm right round the paper, and it didn't seem to me that he was blotting the place where his signature ought to have been."
"Why didn't you ask to read the thing through again?" Higgins demanded.
"I wish I had," Weiss answered gloomily.
Bardsley, a large man, with grey beard and moustache, and coarse, hard face, spoke for the first time.
"Do any of you know," he asked, "whereabouts in that infernal little room of his Duge keeps his papers?"
Weiss looked up.
"I am not sure," he said. "I know that he has a small iron strong-box screwed into the inside of his roll-top desk, and of course there is a safe in the outer office; but I don't see how we're going to find out whether the paper we want is there."
"The girl seemed a fool," Higgins remarked. "Can't she be got at?"
"I have done my best," Weiss answered. "It strikes me she's just fool enough to stick to what she's been told, and she's too scared of her uncle to do more or less. She practically turned me out of his room this morning, when I was just having a look round."
"If there is really anything," Higgins said in a soft voice, "in what Weiss is hinting at, there's only one thing for us to do, and, difficult or easy, it's got to be done, even if we use our friends from down there."
He motioned with his head toward the window which was behind them, and which looked out over the river. They were all three silent for a moment. Then Weiss struck the table lightly with his clenched fist.
"Fools that we are!" he muttered—"babies! idiots! To think that such men as Bardsley and Higgins and myself are compelled to make use of criminals, to put ourselves practically in fear of the law, to get back a paper which we signed like babes in the wood. What if this illness of Duge's is a fake! Nowadays a man doesn't need to move from his room to do mischief in this world."
"I've been round to his broker's this morning," Higgins remarked. "He is doing nothing, has done nothing for weeks. He left off the day we all agreed to leave off."
"Why couldn't he be doing as we've done," Bardsley remarked, "and work from Chicago or Boston?"
Higgins grunted, and poured himself out a glass of wine.
"You fellows have got the nerves," he said contemptuously. "You're imagining things like a pack of frightened women. Duge can't swallow us up, even if he tumbled to our game. I don't believe there's anything in this funk of yours. As to signing that paper, well, we've got to run the Government of this country, as well as a good many other things, if the Government won't leave us alone. Duge's name is on it right enough, but if you fellows are really going to shake all day about it, let's have the paper, even if we blow up the house. I'll send for Danes to-night. We'll meet him down town somewhere—two of us, no more—and see what he can suggest. If we get that paper, and Duge's illness isn't a sham, he'll come downstairs to face the biggest smash that any man in New York has ever dreamed of, and serve him d——d well right. I'm sick of the fellow and his ways. For every million we've scooped, he's scooped two. Every deal we've been into, he's had a little the best of us. We are going to get our own back, but for Heaven's sake don't let us spoil the game because you fellows have got the shivers. We'll have another bottle of wine, and right after lunch I shall telephone down for Danes. Now let's chuck it. There's little Simpson and Henderson watching us like cats. They'll think we've got caught on something, or that we are going on the market. Eat your luncheon, and don't forget my supper-party to-night. The whole crowd from the Eden Theatre are coming. I only hope the reporters don't get hold of it."
* * * * *
A few hours later Virginia was summoned to her uncle's room. As she entered the door she passed a small, insignificant-looking man, plainly dressed, and of somewhat servile appearance, whom she remembered to have seen about the place several times since her arrival. He glanced at her in passing, and Virginia saw that his eyes, at any rate, were keen enough. She found her uncle, now fully dressed, walking up and down the room, with his hands behind his back.
"I have just had news of our friends, Virginia," he remarked. "They are evidently very much in earnest. If they can't get hold of that paper by strategy, they are going to try and steal it."
"Won't that be a little difficult?" she asked.
"More difficult than they imagine. The coffer itself is an inch thick, and the lock will stand anything but dynamite. However, I hear that they've engaged a professional burglar, so we ought to get some amusement out of it."
"How did you hear this?" she asked.
"The little man who has just gone out," he answered. "He is one of Pinkerton's detectives, or rather he was. He is in my service now, and spends most of his time watching these precious friends of mine. I expect they will make the attempt to-night."
"What are you going to do?" she asked. "Send for the police?"
Her uncle shook his head.
"Certainly not," he answered. "If it wasn't that I suppose they will arrange it so that the affair could not possibly be traced back to them, I should be in the room myself. As it is, I shall leave the matter to Leverson, the man who has just gone out. He will get as much help as he wants. Only if you hear a noise in the night, you will know what to expect."
Virginia shivered a little.
"There will be a fight, I suppose," she said.
"There may be some shooting," he answered. "In any case, I am not afraid of their opening my safe-box."
In the middle of the night Virginia was awakened by the sound of a revolver shot. She put on her dressing-gown, and, with an electric torch in her hand, started to descend the stairs. The house was already, however, a blaze of light. Electric alarm bells were ringing, and servants were hurrying toward the library. The man Leverson was sitting in an easy-chair, with an ugly gash across the temple, and one of his men had a revolver wound through the shoulder. One of the two burglars, however, whom they had surprised, was a prisoner in their hands, a pale, sullen-looking man, who had apparently accepted his fate quite philosophically. He was just being marched off by the uniformed police when Virginia arrived.
"Has anything been taken?" she asked Leverson.
"Not a thing, miss," the man answered. "There were three of them, but two escaped. One was Bill Danes, I'm sure o' that, and we can lay our hands upon him at any time. This one I don't know, but they meant business. They had enough dynamite with them to blow the house up."
She crossed to her uncle's desk and looked downward. The carpet had apparently not been disturbed. There were no signs that it had been touched at all.
"Are these men ordinary burglars?" she asked Leverson.
"Why, I imagine so," he answered. "Their tools are as smart a lot as ever I saw in my life. They had spies all round the house to help them escape, and this one would have got away too, if I hadn't tripped him up."
"Curse you!" the bound man muttered.
Virginia looked at him and shivered.
"Well, I am glad you caught one of them," she said. "I will go and tell my uncle."
But Phineas Duge already knew all about it. He smiled when Virginia brought him her news.
"They must be desperate indeed," he said, "to run such risks. However, I suppose they have bought these fellows' silence safe enough."
The midday papers were full of the attempted burglary. Before the magistrates, the man who had been apprehended said not a word. He seemed to accept his position with stolid fatalism. The cross-examination as to his associates, and the motive of the attempted robbery, was absolutely futile.
Phineas Duge kept up during the day the assumption of severe indisposition. No one was allowed to see him. A bulletin posted outside announced that he had been ordered complete and entire rest; and all the time the telephone wires from his bedroom, high up in the back of the house, were busy flashing messages east and west, all over the country. The work in which he had been engaged was zealously pushed home. No one saw his secretaries coming and going so often from his room, and neither of them was willing to admit, in fact they flatly denied when questioned, that they had seen their chief at all. Towards afternoon, Virginia returned from a short drive in the park to be told that two gentlemen were waiting to see her. She found no one in the drawing-room or waiting-room, however, or any of the usual reception-rooms, and rang the bell for the butler.
"Where are these people, Groves," she asked, "who want to see me?"
"They are in the library, madam," the man answered.
"You mean in your master's room?" she asked, with a sudden presentiment.
"Yes, madam!" the man answered. "You see, they are Mr. Weiss and Mr. Higgins, two of the master's greatest friends, and they wished to see the room where the burglary took place."
Virginia looked at the man in cold anger.
"Groves," she said, "you had my orders that no one was to be admitted into that room."
"I am sorry if I did wrong, madam," the man answered. "I made exception in favour of these two gentlemen, because they were constant visitors here, and old friends of Mr. Duge's, and I scarcely thought that your orders would apply to them."
Virginia stepped past him and across the hall. She entered the room suddenly and closed the door behind her. Mr. Weiss, with a bunch of keys in his hand, was trying to find one that fitted her uncle's desk. Higgins, who held an open penknife, seemed to have been attempting to pry the lid. They started as they saw Virginia enter, and it flashed into her mind at once that they had waited to pay their visit until they had seen her go out, and that her return so quickly had disconcerted them.
"Mr. Weiss," she said, crossing the room towards them, "this room is in my charge. It is by my uncle's orders that no one enters it. I regret that you were shown here by a servant who misunderstood his instructions. Will you come into the morning-room with me at once?"
Mr. Weiss stood up. Higgins had moved a little toward the door, and Virginia suddenly realized that her retreat was cut off.
"Young lady," the former said, "you must forgive us both, and me especially, if we speak to you very plainly. I told you about the document in which we were interested, which your uncle was holding yesterday. We were willing to let it remain here under ordinary circumstances, but after the events of last night, we do not propose to let it stay here another hour. If your uncle is not well enough to be spoken to, then we must take the matter into our own hands. You can see for yourself what a risk we run, when only last night an attempt was very nearly successfully made to steal these papers,"
"I hear what you say," Virginia answered. "May I ask what you intend to do?"
"To break open this desk, if necessary," Mr. Weiss said, "and to find our way somehow or other into the interior of the coffer where these papers are."
"And supposing I tell you," she answered calmly, "that I shall not permit a second burglary in this room within twenty-four hours?"
Higgins came forward.
"Miss Virginia," he said, "pardon me, Miss Longworth, you look like a sensible young woman. I believe you are. Consider our position. Our whole future as men of influence and character depends upon certain papers, of which your uncle had charge, being kept absolutely secret. We entrusted him with the care of them in health, but we are not prepared to let them stay here now that he is lying upstairs dangerously ill, and one attempt to steal them has already been made. Take the case at its worst; if your uncle should die, a seal would be put upon all his effects, and nothing in the world could stop those documents becoming public property. You can't realize what that would mean to us. It would mean ruin not only to ourselves, but to hundreds of others. It would mean a panic in all the money-markets of the world. We only meant that paper to remain in existence for a matter of twenty-four hours. We are fully determined that it shall not remain in this room any longer, guarded or unguarded. Can't you sympathize with us? Don't you see the position we are in?"
"Whatever is in this room," Virginia said, "is safe until my uncle is well enough to decide what shall be done. While he remains in his present condition I shall not allow anything to be disturbed."
"You have relations," Higgins said to her meaningly, "whom you would like to help. One could not offer to bribe you. Don't think that I mean anything of the sort. But between us we will give one hundred thousand dollars for those papers, and I guarantee that when your uncle recovers he will be quite willing to give you another hundred thousand for having been sensible enough to let us have them."
Virginia turned her back upon him.
"This is not a matter," she said, "if you please, Mr. Weiss, which I can discuss with you or your friend. I cannot let you stay in this room. If you will not go away, I must ring for the servants."
Higgins made a sudden movement, as though to seize her by the arms, but she was too quick for him. She wheeled suddenly round, and something very small but very deadly looking flashed out in her hand.
"You will force me," she said, "to treat you like thieves. I know that you are not, but I shall treat you as though you were if you don't leave this room. Don't think that this is a toy either," she continued. "Revolver shooting was one of our favourite recreations up in the country. Will you get up from that desk, Mr. Weiss?"
He stooped down and tried one of the keys from his bunch. Virginia did not hesitate. She pulled the trigger of her revolver, and a bullet whistled only a few inches from his head. He sprang upright in a minute.
"Damn the girl!" he said. "Higgins, take that thing away from her."
But Virginia was standing with her back to the wall, and Higgins, after one look into her face, shook his head.
"Don't be a fool, Weiss," he said. "This sort of thing won't do. You've lost your head. Beg Miss Longworth's pardon and come away. She is quite right. There is no excuse for our behaving like this."
Weiss hesitated for a moment, looked into Virginia's face himself, and with a shrug of the shoulders admitted defeat. The two men moved toward the door.
"I am going to call now upon your uncle's physician," Weiss said. "I am going to tell him that whatever the risk to your uncle may be, we must have an interview with him."
"As you please," Virginia answered. "That has nothing to do with me."
They left the room and closed the door behind them. Virginia, breathing a little quickly, crossed the room and tried the desk, but it was still fast locked. She looked down at the carpet and found it undisturbed. Then she stood up, and started violently. The inner door leading into the secretaries' room was open, and her uncle was standing there upon the threshold. He smiled at her benevolently.
"I congratulate you, Virginia," he said. "You have routed two of the worst scoundrels in New York. Now please help me to get upstairs again without being seen."
The great automobile swung out of the park into the avenue, and Stella drew a little sigh of regret.
"Mine is the next turning," she said. "Thank you so much, Mr. Littleson. I have enjoyed every minute of it."
Littleson smiled, but he did not slacken speed.
"I was very fortunate indeed to meet you," he said, "but I shall not think of letting you go until you have had some lunch. It is nearly one o'clock."
Stella settled down again in her seat.
"That is very kind of you," she said. "I had an idea that you were such a tremendously busy person, that you never stopped work for luncheon or trifles of that sort."
"A mistake, I can assure you," he said. "Which do you prefer, Sherry's or Delmonico's?"
"Martin's, if you don't mind," she answered. "I like watching a crowd of people."
They found a quiet table in one of the balconies, and Littleson devoted several minutes to ordering a luncheon which should be worthy of his reputation. Then he leaned across the table and looked steadily at his companion.
"Miss Duge," he said, "we have known one another for some time, although chance has never been very kind to me in the way of bringing us together. Now I am going to tell you something which I dare say will surprise you. When I saw you in the park this morning, I was on my way to call upon you."
She raised her eyebrows. She was certainly surprised.
"Do you mean that?" she asked.
"I mean it," he answered.
"But why? I have seen so little of you. I had no idea that you knew even what had become of me since I had left my father."
"I am going to explain everything by and by," he said, "but first of all I want to ask you one question. Do you know anything about this illness of your father's? Do you believe that it is a genuine thing, or that he has some motive of his own for keeping to his room?"
A faint smile parted Stella's lips.
"I begin to understand," she murmured. "I must admit that I was puzzled at your sudden interest in me."
"Does it need any particular reason?" he asked, looking at her admiringly.
Stella, who was conscious of a new hat and a very becoming gown, laughed softly.
"Well, perhaps it shouldn't," she said, "but, you see, you have given yourself away. But I may as well warn you at once that I know nothing about my father. He has even forbidden me the house, and I have not seen him for weeks,"
"So I understood," he said. "May I be quite frank?"
"Of course," she answered. "If you really have anything to say to me, I should prefer it."
"Then after the oysters I will undertake to be," he declared, smiling.
He turned away to send a boy out for some flowers and order some wine, and afterwards they proceeded with their lunch, talking of the slight things of the moment. Littleson, in that little group of millionaires, represented youth, and to a certain extent fashion. He came from one of the better-known families in New York. He had rooms and connections in London and Paris. He was fairly good looking, and always irreproachably dressed. Stella looked at him more than once approvingly. He was certainly a desirable companion. For the rest, she had little vanity, and she knew well enough that he had some purpose of his own in seeking her out. She had only known of him as one of her father's allies, and she was puzzled to know the meaning of that first question of his.
He seemed in no hurry, however, to satisfy her curiosity. He had ordered a wonderful lunch, and not until they had reached its final stage did he refer again to anything approaching serious conversation. Then he leaned a little across the table towards her, and she felt the change in his expression and tone, as he began to speak in lowered voice.
"Miss Duge," he said, "I dare say you were surprised at my question to you. Let me explain. Your father and several others of us have been allies for some time in some very important matters connected with finance. For the last few months, however, we have all felt a sort of vague uneasiness one with the other. Apparently we were all still pulling the same way, yet I think that each one of us had the feeling that there was something wrong. We all began to distrust one another. To come to an end quickly, I hope I do not offend you, Miss Duge, when I say that it is my belief that your father has been and is trying to deceive us for his own benefit."
Stella nodded assent.
"Well," she said, "I don't know why you should imagine that it could offend me to hear you say that. I understood that amongst you who control the money-markets there is no friendship, nor any right and wrong. At least if there is, it is the man who succeeds who is right, and the man who fails who is wrong."
"To a certain extent you are right, Miss Duge," he answered, "but you must remember that there is an old adage, 'Honour amongst thieves!'"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Well," she said, "we won't discuss that. You have got so far in your story as to tell me that you believe my father is trying to get the best of you all, and you seem to be a little nervous about it. Well, I know my father, and I don't mind telling you that I should not be in the least surprised if you were right."
He lit a cigarette and passed the box across the table to her.
"Good!" he said. "It is a pleasure to talk to you, Miss Duge. You grasp everything so quickly. Now you understand the position, then. There are three or four of us, including myself, on one side, and your father on the other. Supposing it was in your power to help either, and your interests lay with us," he added, speaking with a certain meaning in his tone—"well, to cut it short, how should you feel about it?"
"You mean," she said slowly, "would my filial devotion outweigh—other considerations?"
He looked at her admiringly.
"You are a marvel, Miss Duge," he said. "That is exactly what I do mean."
She leaned back in her chair for a moment, and looked thoughtfully through the little cloud of cigarette smoke into the face of the man opposite to her.
"You have probably heard," she said, "that my father turned me out of his house."
"There was a rumour—" he began hesitatingly.
"Oh! it was no rumour," she interrupted. "He took care that every one knew that I had given Norris Vine some information about his doings in Canadian Pacifies. If I were back at home, which I never shall be, I would do the same thing again. I have lived with my father since I came back from Europe, and I know what manner of a man he is. I think," she continued, looking away from him, and speaking more thoughtfully, "that I was just like the average girl when I came back to New York. I lived with my father for two or three years, and—well—it would be a severe lesson for any one. However, this doesn't matter. And I am not over-sensitive. If you have anything to say to me, say it."
"I will," he answered. "We have an idea that at any moment there may be war between us and your father. I think that the odds would be very much in our favour but for one thing. Your father has a paper which we foolishly enough all signed one night, which places us practically in his power. If that paper were given to the Press, we should all of us be ruined men—I mean so far as prestige and position are concerned. Further, I am not sure that we should not have to leave the country altogether."
She looked at him in wonder. "Whatever made you sign such a paper?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"Heaven knows!" he answered. "We were a little mad. We did not mean to leave it in your father's charge, however. That is why this illness of his is so embarrassing to us. We can't help an idea that it is to keep out of our way for a few days, and to retain possession of that wretched document, that he is lying by. If, on the other hand, his illness is genuine, and he were, to put it bluntly, to die, that paper would be discovered by his lawyer, and Heaven knows what he would do with it!"
"I am beginning to understand," Stella said. "Now please tell me where I come in."
"We are willing," Littleson said quietly, "to give a hundred thousand dollars to the person who places that paper in our charge. To any one who knew your father's house, and where he keeps his important documents, the task would not be an impossible one."
She looked at him fixedly for several moments. He was half afraid that she was going to get up and leave him. Instead, however, she broke into a hard little laugh, and helped herself to another cigarette.
"You forget," she said, "that I have no longer the entree to my father's house."
"It would be perfectly easy for you," he answered, "to go there, especially with your father out of the way upstairs. I presume that you know where he keeps his important papers?"
"Yes! I know that," she answered. "It is a pity," she added, with a faint smile upon her lips, "that those burglars didn't, isn't it?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"A clumsy effort that, of course," he admitted, "especially when your father has a detective always round the place. He is well guarded, but I think that you could do better than that if you would, Miss Duge."
"About the paper?" she asked.
"It is simply," he answered, "a sheet of foolscap. I will not tell you exactly what is written upon it, but it contains a proposal with reference to raising a certain sum of money, to remove from office certain prominent politicians who are supporting this Anti-Trust Bill. Our names are all there, Bardsley's, Weiss', Seth Higgins', and my own. Your father's should have been there, but I believe he was too clever for us."
She began drawing on her gloves.
"Well," she said, "I have had a delightful morning, thanks to you, and these roses are lovely. Supposing I should feel that my gratitude still requires some expression, where could I write you?"
He handed her a card, which she tucked into her muff. They left the restaurant together, talking again of the people whom they passed, of the play at the theatre, of which they were reminded by the sight of a popular actress, and other indifferent matters. He offered his automobile, which she declined.
"I am going to make a call quite close to here," she said. "Good-bye!"
"I hope that I shall hear from you soon," he said, bowing over her hand.
"You may," she answered, smiling, as she turned away.
MR. NORRIS VINE
Stella walked briskly down Fifth Avenue and turned into Broadway. Here she took a car down town, and presented herself in the space of twenty minutes or so before the offices of Mr. Norris Vine, at the top of a great flight of stairs in a building near Madison Square. Vine himself opened the door, and led her through the clerk's office into his own small but luxurious apartment.
"You were just going out?" she asked.
"It is no matter," he answered. "I have at least half an hour that I can spare."
He led her to his easy-chair, and seated himself in the chair before his desk. The sunshine fell upon his thin, somewhat hard face, and she looked at him thoughtfully.
"Are you getting older, Norris?" she asked, "or are things going the wrong way with you just now?"
He raised his eyebrows.
"It is a very strenuous life this," he remarked. "One has to crush all one's nervous instincts, and when one has succeeded in doing that, one finds oneself a little aged."
"You look like that," she said. "You look as though a good many of the fires had burned out, and left you—well, something of a machine. Is it worth while?"
"I don't know," he answered listlessly.
"You ought to go to Europe more often," she said softly. "I do not understand how men can make the slaves of themselves that you do here. Don't you long sometimes to feel your feet off the treadmill?"
"Perhaps," he answered; "but the life here becomes like one of those pernicious habits of cigarette smoking, or morphia taking. It grips hold of you—grips hold very tight," he added in a lower tone.
"I wonder," she said, "whether there is anything in the world which would tempt you to break away from it."
He struck the desk at which he was sitting, suddenly, with his clenched fist. His face was still colourless, but his black eyes held a touch of fire.
"Don't!" he said. "I am not such a slave, after all, as to love my chains; but don't you understand that one gets into this morass, and one can keep a foothold only by struggling."
"Is that how it is with you, Norris?" she asked.
"Yes!" he answered, with a sudden fierceness. "Six months ago I think that I might have freed myself. I shouldn't have been a rich man, but over there in Europe, where people have learned how to live, wealth isn't in the least necessary. I had enough for Italy, for a season in Paris, for a little sport in Hungary, even for a month or two at Melton. I hesitated, and while I hesitated the thing closed in upon me again. Then your father and I came up against one another once more, and I began it all over again."
"Am I right," she asked softly, "in imagining that just now things are going a little wrong?"
"I am fighting for my life," he said tersely. "Wherever I have turned during the last few months I seem to have encountered the opposition of your father's millions. Our sales are going down day by day. The great advertisers are practically ignoring us. We are losing money fast. That is what happens to any one who dares to raise a finger against the accursed idols of this country. Three of the greatest advertisement contractors have given us notice that they have struck off our paper from their list. It is your father's doings, Stella. I had hoped something from this illness of his, but the thing goes on. Do you know whether he is really laid up, or whether this is part of a scheme?"